One of my favorite genres of film – perhaps even my favorite genre – is the good-ole’ fashioned murder mystery. From Agatha Christie to Nick and Nora Charles, I’ve loved watching a fun caper play out before my eyes, providing vital clues that the viewer has to pick up on. Hell, I’ve watched so many that at this point I can usually predict the ending thirty minute in, allowing me to enjoy the ride for the next ninety. So you would probably assume that Knives Out, the newest film from talented writer/director Rian Johnson and starring most of Hollywood’s favorite actors, would be right up my alley. And you know what? You’re right. Knives Out is, in fact, one of my favorites of 2019, thanks to its sharp comedy and incisive commentary on families in the current era.
*Ed. Note: While I will be carefully avoiding twists and spoilers in this review, certain small details will have to come up. No major or important spoilers will be given, but if you’re looking to go in fresh, just know that I like and recommend the film and come back for my commentary after seeing it
The day after his 85th birthday, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his study behind a locked door, his throat slit. While the early ruling is that he has committed suicide, private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the last of the Gentlemen Sleuths, suspects foul play. Aided by the nervous and honest-to-a-fault caretaker Marta (Ana de Armas), Blanc begins working his way through the list of suspects. Could it be the shrewd eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) or her sleazy husband Richard (Don Johnson)? The spacey in-law Joni (Toni Collette)? The family black sheep Ransom (Chris Evans)? Or does Marta know more than she’s letting on? It’s up to Benoit Blanc to uncover the truth.
The first thing that will stand out to you about Knives Out is the way it uses its story not just to entertain and confound, but to offer up some shrew commentary. With families currently tearing each other apart through political debates and strife over the state of the world, Johnson takes these ideas and scenarios and forces them to their satirical, dramatic conclusion – that these family squabbles are absolute murder. This setup is clear from some of the very first moments, as we see the family debating politics and throwing around humorous 2019 buzzwords that could easily appear at your upcoming family dinner table. Katherine Langford’s faux-woke white liberal granddaughter Margaret is chided by her aunt for using her grandfather’s money to fund a “crypto-Marxist” college education. Jaeden Martell’s Jacob is an Internet troll who dabbles in the alt-right, doxxes female journalists, and is dubbed by his liberal aunt as a “literal Nazi.” The family gathers around the fireplace to debate the border and the economy. Every detail inside this household serves as a parody of the modern American household, and the underlying question of murder adds a layer of comical commentary to the mix. However, while a lesser film may take one side or another in these debates and stick with them (and make no mistake: it’s clear where Johnson’s sympathies lie), the film dives deeper into these fights to comment on a unifying enemy: greed. While some members of the Thrombey family may identify as Republican and others may identify as Democrat, the end result makes no difference: these are spoiled, entitled people who are already morally bankrupt thanks to their exorbitant wealth.
At the end of the day, each and every member of the Thrombey family is terrible thanks to their spoiled upbringing and privileged surrounding. Each and every member seems more interested in the expected inheritance than in their father’s death. And the living children frequently utter the infamous refrain of overindulged failsons who like to gloss over loans from their billionaire parents, “I built my business from the ground up!” It’s a blemish and affliction that strikes each and every member of the family, even the “bleeding hearts” of the bunch. However, you can tell exactly how loathsome these characters are based on their interactions with Marta. Gone is the complicated nuance of last year’s Roma – it is clear that each and every member of the family looks down on the Latina caretaker as a member of “the help.” Sure, they shower her with pleasantries, insincere appraisals of “You’re a part of this family,” and hokily delivered Hamilton quotes, but it’s never once believable. After all, only so many members of the family can say, “I wanted you at the funeral, but I was outvoted” before you realize most of them have to be lying. Knives Out makes it clear that greed blinds you to what is important in life, often ends up in the worst possible hands, and brings about death and sadness.
And yet, despite the film’s deeper, more current themes on display, Knives Out is first and foremost a killer whodunit. From the very opening, the film makes it clear that it has an affinity for the classics that came before through its sendup to the days of Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, and Jessica Fletcher, in the best possible way. Johnson sets up his story with a commanding confidence and knowing structure, from a house that seems straight out of Clue with its secret passageways and staircases to its troubling band of suspects to a lurking, smirking detective – the so-called Last of the Gentleman Sleuths. This is a film with nostalgia for the dormant genre, as characters scoff and criticize the modern-day CSI gorefests while adoring detective lit and Murder, She Wrote. A character even points out that she suspects something is amiss because, “I saw this Hallmark movie with a similar plot!” (It’s worth noting that she’s absolutely describing a Lifetime Movie, but I digress). Johnson is interested in reviving the genre as a whole, complete with clever twists, characters who are told by the murder victim that something bad will happen…tomorrow, and big red envelopes with initials on them. This is the type of film where every detail is important, and comes back in ways big (major plot points) or small (throwaway jokes). And in proper Johnson fashion, he even puts his own rule-breaking stamp on it by dropping twists far sooner than expected, forcing the plot to twist in new, unexpected ways as early as the second act. Johnson has an affinity for the genre, and it carries over in every frame of the film.
Now, I’d be lying if I said that Johnson completely nailed the execution. He takes a painfully long time setting up motives – all of which demonstrated with telling, not showing. There’s a fractured storytelling narrative device that is, at best, confusing and, at worst, obvious to keen eyed audience members. And while I enjoyed the callbacks and self-awareness of the material, it does tend to reach a breaking point where you begin to wonder, “Is Johnson spelling this out to clearly for me?” But at the end of the day, who cares? It’s a fun, rollicking mystery that offers you the chance to sit back and relax or play along at home. Hell, flipping through my notebook to prepare this review, I discovered half my notes weren’t even about the craft of the film – they were simply an attempt to try to keep track of the twisting, turning mystery like I was a detective myself. And considering guessing twist endings is a blessing/curse of mine, the fact I only managed to predict the first and last turns is an impressive feat. The best description of Johnson’s mystery perhaps comes from Marta, who tells Harlan in one early scene that her strategy in the game Go involves “not playing to beat you. I’m playing to build a beautiful pattern.” It’s both why Marta is an interesting protagonist and why the film works – it doesn’t care if the twists trick us or not. Johnson just wants to unfurl a fun little sandbox for us to play in.
But even if you’re not a fan of murder mysteries or political/social satires, Knives Out manages to entertain just by being flat-out funny. Johnson instills his scenes with different layers of humor, each pulling laughs out of the twisted world the characters inhabit. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that Johnson, through his characters, expresses a self-awareness for the world he’s created. One of my first observations about the film is how similar the Thrombey Mansion is to the game Clue, only for the characters to later comment on how the house is a giant Clue board. Daniel Craig’s Southern accent bears a striking resemblance to Foghorn Leghorn, and whether that was the actor’s choice or the script’s, it feels vindicating to hear Chris Evans ask him, “Why the hell are you speaking with that Foghorn Leghorn accent?” By acknowledging the comedic elephants in the room, Johnson is inviting us into his headspace, and sharing in the laughs he’s providing the audience. Meanwhile, Johnson also flaunts his knowledge of the genre through a series of jokes that legitimately land even if you aren’t an aficionado for classic detective fiction. For example, every famous detective has a special method for which he or she manages to solve crimes. Hercule Poirot had his “little gray cells.” Sherlock Holmes had his Mind Palace. Adrian Monk had his “blessing and a curse.” Benoit Blanc calls his technique “Gravity’s Rainbow,” after the book of the same name. When he tells Marta this, she replies, “I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow.” To which Blanc replies, without missing a beat, “Of course not. No one has.” As an English major and a mystery lover, this line speaks to me. And Johnson doesn’t stop there with his genre references – there are clever cuts from Jamie Lee Curtis flaunting that she’s too smart to fall for Blanc’s ruses, only for her husband to buy them hook, line and sinker. There’s a mysteriously old woman who appears randomly and shockingly to hilarious effect. And there’s a fun guessing game surrounding if Benoit Blanc is actually a good detective or not – for a supposedly great private eye, he does miss a rather important clue due to his investment in the Stephen Sondheim song “Losing My Mind.” And I haven’t even touched on Quotes Of The Year like “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you!” and “She wouldn’t kill someone! Have you seen her Insta? She’s an influencer!” This is a funny-ass film, and it’s a pure joy to watch.
In terms of the ensemble, it’s hard to think of a better who’s who than the entirely game cast Johnson has assembled here. I’m a sucker for Daniel Craig having fun and performing bad Southern accents, so obviously I am obsessed with his work here as Benoit Blanc. Craig is surprisingly understated in the role (outside of the accent, of course, choosing to lurk in the shadows, provide masterful soliloquies about his detective skills, and bumble his way through the mystery to the end. He keeps us guessing throughout whether he’s a genius or an idiot. However, it is perhaps generous on his part – by giving a good, yet understated performance, it allows his chief co-start to shine. Ana de Armas has been on a role of late, thanks to key breakout roles in Blade Runner 2049 and War Dogs. Here, Armas gets her chance to shine with a role just as eccentric as her bigger-name costars, and yet thanks to her natural innocence and close-to-the-chest emotional state, also emerges as one of the year’s most entertaining, complicated characters. It doesn’t hurt that she’s so effortlessly charming as well. Of course, if the film is stolen by anyone, it has to be the double team of Chris Evans and Toni Collette. After ten years of playing the epitome of good in Captain America, Evans relishes the opportunity to return to his cocky, assh*lish roots with Ransom Drysdale, the black sheep of the family. From the moment he walks onscreen, he spits fire and cocks his eyebrow with aplomb. He appropriately keeps us guessing from his very first scene where his motivations lie, and his over-it attitude makes for one of the film’s most entertaining characters. Meanwhile, Collette performs a complete 180 from last year’s Hereditary. Not only does she play Joni as a ditzy social media socialite, but she adds an extra, knife-turning layer of sheer brilliance: Collette plays this role as a Gwyneth Paltrow impersonation. And IT. IS. PHENOMENAL. Collette approaches the role with the same dedication as Hereditary, yet with a completely different energy that damn near steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen. I am obsessed with her line readings, and hope that these two films open every door possible to her.
As married couple Linda and Richard Drysdale, Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson each appeal to their legacies to turn in funny, vindictive performances. Curtis plays the role almost with the same commitment as her underrated work in 2003’s Freaky Friday, and it somehow works. Johnson, meanwhile, walks a thin line between knowingly sleazy and obliviously douchey. His bad behavior is known to all, even himself, and yet he also has lines that he wisely plays as if he doesn’t fully understand. In fact, he’s one of my favorite characters in the film. The adults in the family are rounded out by an expectedly menacing Michael Shannon and talented comedian Riki Lindhome as Shannon’s meeker wife, who manages to hold her own against the acting heavyweights in the cast. The grandchildren consist of a buzzword-spouting Katherine Langford and the phone-wielding Martell, who don’t get many lines but make the ones they have count. Blanc’s fellow officers consist of an excellently skeptical LaKeith Stanfield and a hilariously pop culture-obsessed Noah Segan. And there are two lovely, perfectly cast cameos in the forms of Frank Oz and M. Emmett Walsh. Truly, there are no weak links in this Murderers’ Row of talent.
Knives Out is the kind of film I’ve been waiting decades for. It’s a love letter to the murder mystery genre. It is a shrewd comedy about the state of the world. And it’s an all-around entertaining way to spend an afternoon. I could tell you all sorts of reasons why you should go see this film – the witty message, the talented performances, the confident direction, or the elaborate, quotable screenplay. But at the end of the day, none of these reasons really matter. This is a film where actors we love wear tweed suits and cable knit sweaters discuss nefarious plots and dark secrets while mugging for the camera. When done well, this is one of the best genres we have. And folks, Rian Johnson did well.